CHINA’S weight in the global economy means that it commands the world’s attention. When its industrial production, house building and electricity output slow sharply, as they did in the year to April, the news weighs on global stockmarkets and commodity prices. When its central bank eases monetary policy, as it did this month, it creates almost as big a stir as a decision by America’s Federal Reserve. And when China’s prime minister, Wen Jiabao, stresses the need to maintain growth, as he did last weekend, his words carry more weight with the markets than similar homages to growth from Europe’s leaders. No previous industrial revolution has been so widely watched….
(…) Unlike the tigers, China relies very little on foreign borrowing. Its growth is financed from resources extracted from its own population, not from fickle foreigners free to flee, as happened in South-East Asia (and is happening again in parts of the euro zone). China’s saving rate, at 51% of GDP, is even higher than its investment rate. And the repressive state-dominated financial system those savings are kept in is actually well placed to deal with repayment delays and defaults.
Most obviously, China’s banks are highly liquid. Their deposit-taking more than matches their loan-making, and they keep a fifth of their deposits in reserve at the central bank. That gives the banks some scope to roll over troublesome loans that may be repaid at a later date, or written off at a more convenient time. But there is also the backstop of the central government, which has formal debts amounting to only about 25% of GDP. Local-government debts might double that proportion, but China plainly has enough fiscal space to recapitalise any bank threatened with insolvency.
That space also gives the government room to stimulate growth again, should exports to Europe fall off a cliff. China’s government spent a lot on infrastructure when the credit crunch struck its customers in the West. But there is no shortage of other things it could finance. It could redouble its efforts to expand rural health care, for example. China still has only one family doctor for every 22,000 people. If ordinary Chinese knew that their health would be looked after in their old age, they would save less and spend more. Household consumption accounts for little more than a third of the economy.